Changing Brussels neighbourhood tries to leave stigma of terrorism behind

On a recent morning,
in a former bar converted into a community centre, Assetou Elabo was arranging
tables for students who would soon join her for homework tutoring.

A few years earlier,
the bar’s owner had let drug trafficking proliferate on the site. With patrons,
he would watch videos from the Islamic State. And in the basement of the bar,
Les Béguines, he would chat online with a friend who had joined the terrorist
group in Syria.

Then in November
2015, he detonated his explosive vest as part of a series of attacks in and
around Paris.

For many, the bar
epitomised all that had gone wrong in Molenbeek, the neighbourhood of nearly
100,000 people that was home to seven of the 20 terrorists who killed 130
people in France that November and 32 more in Brussels four months later.

But if the bar
symbolised what Molenbeek had been, the community centre shows what the
neighbourhood is trying to become.

Since being opened by
local residents in 2018, the centre has been dedicated to helping children,
students looking for jobs and people with disabilities. Although the neighbourhood
remains predominantly Muslim, it is more diverse than usually portrayed, with
newcomers changing its composition in recent years.

“What we do here is
the opposite of what the Abdeslam brothers did,” Elabo, a social worker, said
of the bar’s owner, Brahim, and his brother Salah, who helped manage it.

After the Paris
attacks, Molenbeek was subjected to intense global scrutiny. Television crews
from around the world broadcast for days from the neighbourhood’s central
square or near the bar, making residents feel like they were living on a movie

Some journalists
would stop passersby and ask to be introduced to a jihadi. Opinion shapers and
policymakers exhorted moderate Muslims to do more to combat extremism.

Six years later, many
in Molenbeek have taken up the challenge. And far from the public attention,
they have tried to rebuild their community, although it still faces the same
endemic problems — from poverty to unemployment to crime — that contributed to
the radicalisation of some residents.

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“We were ashamed
after the attacks, but now I proudly say that I’m from Molenbeek,” said Dr.
Sara Debulpaep, 47, a paediatrician who has lived here for nearly three

Yet as much as some
residents want to put the stigma of the attacks behind them, the Molenbeek
terrorists are once again in the news.

For the past several
months in Paris, a trial over the 2015 bombings and shootings has examined what
went wrong in Molenbeek, presenting arguments about what drove the attackers
and how their plan was allowed to so horribly succeed.

In court, academics,
lawyers and officials have debated for days the upbringing of the attackers and
those accused of complicity. The reasons for the failure of Brussels police
officers to monitor and arrest them has been dissected even more closely.

Several defendants
standing trial in Paris will also appear before a Brussels court in September
for the attacks on the city in 2016.

Dozens of Molenbeek
residents, mostly young people, travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside
armed groups like the Nusra Front and ISIS in the early 2010s. At the
continuing trial in Paris, one defendant said that upon his release from prison
in 2014, his neighbourhood felt empty: All his friends had gone to Syria and

Of the 20 men accused
in the Paris attacks, seven grew up or lived in Molenbeek. So did one of ISIS’
top recruiters in Europe.

Luc Ysebaert, the
head of the local police, said around 50 people were still being monitored by
intelligence services in the area.

Since the attacks,
the government has awarded numerous grants meant to improve life here and
expand opportunities for the neighbourhood’s young people.

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Bachir Mrabet, a
youth worker at Foyer, one of the main community centres in Molenbeek, said he
had begun news literacy workshops after the attacks, as well as theatre
workshops to let off tensions. He also now organises youth meetings twice a
month instead of once every two months before the bombings. “We’re much more
vigilant,” he said.

But resources are
still tight, and residents still feel stigmatised, said Ali El Abbouti, another
youth worker at Foyer who manages his own community centre.

“We’ve been asked to
do even more, to solve all the problems, but with so little resources,” El
Abbouti said. “And we were already doing so much.” He wants to create places
where young people are encouraged to express themselves; recent projects have
included a podcast in Arabic about the origins of Molenbeek’s first generations
of Moroccan immigrants.

Volunteers say young
people need more guiding examples from older and successful local residents.
“They want mentors, they don’t have that around them,” said Meryam Fellah, a
27-year-old chemistry student who provides coaching at the community centre
that once housed the bar.

Molenbeek’s major
changes are not coming only from longtime residents, but also from some of the
same outside forces that are reshaping much of Brussels.

While residents of
Moroccan origins remain a majority in Molenbeek, in recent years more Eastern
Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans and Roma people have arrived.

The neighbours of
Debulpaep, the paediatrician, include Albanians, Congolese, Guineans, Italians,
Poles and Palestinians. Residents say Molenbeek’s diversity is what makes it

For example,
Molenbeek’s women’s football club last year included players from eight
nationalities on one of its 12-person youth squads, said Imane El Rhifari, a

Some Molenbeek
residents say they are now as annoyed by the arrival of Pentecostal churches in
the area as they were once worried about some mosques fostering extremism.

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Affluent new
residents from the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium have moved into
expensive housing along a gentrifying strip of artists’ studios and organic

In Molenbeek, one can
now visit an exhibition on Belgian adult movie theatres in one of Brussels’
trendiest museums. Art projects, underground concerts and cafes are gaining

But integrating those
patrons and the customers of the kebab restaurants and traditional Islamic
wedding shops that dot the neighbourhood’s main street remains a challenge,
residents say.

“There’s very little
mixing,” El Abbouti said on a recent afternoon as he walked past a gated
residential complex.

And Molenbeek remains
one of the poorest and most densely populated areas in Belgium. At 21%, the
unemployment rate is three times the country’s average.

While the terrorist
threat has been downgraded, cannabis trafficking has exploded, and so have
violent clashes among gangs, said Ysebaert, the local police chief. “Our
problems are very similar to those of large European cities.”

During the pandemic,
scores of young people have dropped out of school, quit playing sports or
stopped going to community centres, youth workers and residents say.

“After 16 years old,
many give up, and we lose them,” said Touben Zouin, who counsels Molenbeek
residents ages 16-25.

There have been some
success stories, too. Just months after the attacks, Ibrahim Ouassari, a local
entrepreneur, opened a tech school dedicated to dropouts, where 30% of the 400
students trained every year come from the neighbourhood. The school, Molengeek,
has since grown into one of Belgium’s biggest tech successes, with branches in
other Belgian cities, the Netherlands and Italy.

Yet Ouassari conceded
there is still a “culture of resignation” in Molenbeek that pushes some young
people toward petty crime and that used to tilt some of them toward

“We haven’t dried up
the fertile ground,” he said, “that creates desperate people.”


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